By Agather Atuhaire
Voters punish incumbents but experts fear what that means for Parliament
Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga, Justice Minister Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, Minister of Lands Daudi Migereko, Minister of Information Jim Muhwezi, Shadow Finance Minister Geofrey Ekanya, and ranking member Emmanuel Dombo had all been in parliament for at least 15 years. Make that 27 years for Kiyonga and Otafiire who were in Uganda’s first Museveni era parliament, the National Resistance Council (NRC) elected in 1989. The bunch is part of over 200 MPs who lost their seats in the just concluded national elections.
Save for the position of the President, when Ugandans voted on Feb. 18, they showed their usual appetite for changing their leaders regularly, especially in parliament. While some analysts are praising the changing of MPs regularly as good for democracy, some say it comes with high costs for Parliament and diminishes its influence.
Of the 345 directly elected MPs in the outgoing Ninth Parliament, only slightly over 100 managed to retain their seats. Only about 10 MPs voluntarily retired from elective politics. The results show that the attrition rate will be much higher than the 64% from the last Parliamentary elections.
The turnover rate has been so brutal that even the longest serving and seemingly most entrenched MPs have not been spared. More than 15 of the longest serving MPs, some of them who have been in Parliament for more than 20 years were this time trounced.
Even the increment of nomination fees for Parliamentary candidates from Shs200,000 to shs3 million, which many observers say was aimed at deterring rivals didn’t save the sitting MPs.
The increment was introduced during the debate on electoral reforms particularly the Parliamentary Elections Act.
The losing started during party Primaries when most of these stalwarts lost to their little known opponents. A few cited unfairness of the exercise. Gen. Otafiire even went against his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party and ran as an independent only for him to be trounced for the second time by the same man he lost to during primaries, Capt. Donozio Kahonda.
Crispus Kiyonga is such a strong pillar in his Kasese district that no one even dared stand against him in the NRM party primaries but he failed to win the national election when Kasese district threw out everything NRM. The party lost in all the district’s six constituencies plus the LC5 chairman position to the opposition’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
But some say this wasn’t surprising. In fact, because of the ever increasing turnover rates, Parliament set up a unit- Institute of Parliamentary Studies (IPS) to among other things train and build capacities among new Parliamentarians.
Voters misplaced expectations
Patrick Wakida, the CEO of the polling agency; Research World International, says their findings showed that there was a high agitation for change across the board and other commentators say there are many reasons for voters to want to vote out MPs.
Gerald Karyeija, the Dean of the school of management science at the Uganda Management Institute attributes the loss of many MPs to misplaced expectations of disappointed voters.
He says because of the limited public services provided by the government, voters have misplaced expectations in the MPs.
“While the traditional roles of an MP are representation, legislation and oversight,” he says, “voters expect MPs to solve their personal and communal problems.”
“Voters see any MP who cannot do that as one who has failed them or who likes to eat alone and forget the people that voted him,” he adds.
Karyeija also points at the increased competition for parliamentary seats. He says MPs are among the most highly paid people in Uganda; earning far more than CEOs of many mid-sized companies.
“Because of the perceived benefits of MPs, the wide spread unemployment and the limited required qualifications,” says Karyeija, “Parliament has become very lucrative and that’s why we will keep seeing MPs in and out more regularly.”
He says many people are interested and will do anything to make it to parliament. Voter expectations for public services hurt opposition MPs more because the government frequently sabotages them.
On many occasions, President Yoweri Museveni openly tells voters to make their choices wisely saying that they will miss out on services if they vote the opposition. He acts on it when they do not listen to him and roads, hospitals, schools in opposition strongholds remain in shambles. Not that those in ruling party area are that much better. But the voters often are led to think these MPs are under performers and are the reason the government does not let services get to their constituencies.
In this sense, says Makerere University Don Mwambutsya Ndebesa, most of these MPs have been sacrificial lambs in areas where there is poor service delivery. It is not in their mandate nor do they have the capacity to provide these services.
Ndebesa says only MPs who are close to the government in power and are adept at lobbying can have public services trickling in to their constituencies. His views confirm why almost all the MPs that have kept their Parliamentary seats for 20 years and more are NRM party strong cadres. But even MPs in the ruling party cannot always ride on Museveni’s support.
Aggrey Awori is a former opposition MP and one time Presidential candidate who crossed the floor into NRM and was appointed minister.
He says the government does not share its development and success with the MPs. When there is development, Awori says, Museveni takes the credit alone and when there are failures, he joins the electorate in blaming them on their MPs.
He says voters kick out MPs often because, to them, the President is out of reach and the reasons and circumstances surrounding the positions are different.
Awori says while the voters know they can vote out an MP and continue to live life as usual; they think that is not guaranteed when they change the President.
“The main factor for Ugandans voting President Museveni is a historical one,” he says, “Museveni came at a time when Ugandans were suffering immensely and they can’t risk going back to where they were in the 1980s so they think only Museveni can guarantee that.
Awori also says the President has his biggest support in rural areas and mostly women, who he describes as loyal, appreciative, and willing to support the government even when it has given them little.
Awori predicts that although commentators have noted the mediocrity of the outgoing Ninth parliament compared to its predecessor, the incoming 10th Parliament is likely to be far worse than the ninth Parliament in output.
“The performance will, this time, be poorer than we have been seeing,” he says. “You will see more of what has been happening; of the NRM caucus ruling Parliament and the caucus itself being ruled by State House.”
Awori says this will be mainly because the opposition has been further weakened with most of its vocal and fearless MPs defeated and also because the new MPs will be inexperienced as far as Parliamentary business is concerned.
Karyeija agrees with Awori. He says there has been deterioration in the quality of MPs in almost all the constituencies.
“One person was the other day saying it is unimaginable that a constituency that was one time represented by Eriya Kategaya is now represented by Kyamadidi.”
He was referring to Rwampara constituency which is represented by Vincent Kyamadidi, who also lost to its former legislator Charles Ngabirano in the recently concluded election.
Karyeija says voters are changing MPs for the wrong reasons and it undermines competency and efficiency. “Most of the time the change is about who has provided most handouts to the voters and this undermines output.”
He says this is not good for Parliament or the country because incompetent and inexperienced MPs take longer to learn and catch up with Parliament business.
Supporters of regular change say, however, that immaturity and lack of experience notwithstanding, it is good to change MPs regularly. Prof. Ndebesa belongs to this camp.
“Competition breeds perfection while perpetuity stifles democracy and fair competition,” he says.
Asked to pint out any good one might find in regularly changing MPs, Karyeija who belongs to the other camp, says voting out MPs takes away the sense of entitlement.
“People like Kiyonga who have been in Parliament since the 1980s and Otafiire must have started to think they own those seats in parliament,” he says.
According to Karyeija, the ability to vote out MPs also gives the citizens hope that their vote still counts.
“In a society where people are almost losing all hope in the electoral process,” he says, “voting out old MPs and voting in new ones makes them believe they still matter and have the power to decide their leaders.”